When James Raven followed in the footsteps of the likes of Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson and Mark Webber – winning the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch in October – many were surprised with how well the Brit had performed.
But anyone following James’ season in the BRSCC Formula Ford National and Northern Championships will know that it’s no surprise that the 19 year old battled up front with some of the best the Formula Ford world has to offer, driving for Cliff Dempsey Racing.
The season began for James with a difficult weekend, whereby problems with the car he was supposed to race over the weekend forced him into an unfamiliar backup car.
“In the build up [to Oulton] we’d been struggling in testing with the car we ran later in the year,” said Raven.
“I ran the Ray 2013/14 chassis but for the first round at Oulton we ran the 2012 chassis, because we’d had problems with the brakes and clutch with the new car. So that was the first time I’d got in it and we weren’t far off the pace.”
Raven managed two third place finishes, before moving on to a dominant second round at Anglesey in May, but not before the issues with the new 13/14 Ray car had been sorted.
“We moved onto Anglesey in the newer car, we tested after Oulton and got all the issues sorted, Cliff [Dempsey] replaced the whole clutch system. We won the first race by 15 or 16 seconds in the wet and it was only an eight or nine lap race!
“The car was set up well and I enjoy driving in the wet. It’s a good leveler of skill so I didn’t mind that.
“On the Sunday it was wet as well and we managed to win that by eight or nine seconds so that was one of the best weekends of the year along with the Festival.”
Something apparent at Anglesey was Raven’s pace in the wet, and while many in the Formula Ford paddock are well aware of Cliff Dempsey Racing’s quick cars in the wet, Raven took it to another level with his dominance on a circuit layout he’d only raced on once before.
After Anglesey, the Portsmouth-born teenager really had established his reputation with a sterling performance in the wet, and a win and a second from the next round at Brands put him right at the fighting end of the championship, with the returning Stuart Gough – coming back from a hiatus from the Formula Ford scene – Raven’s company at the top of the table.
Gough and Raven’s rivalry really came to the fore after the Brands round, when at Donington the two came together at Redgate, and Raven retired.
“The first race we had a bit of a nightmare. I was battling with Stuart Gough and he came up the inside at the first corner and I tried to slow down and turn in but caught his back wheel and went over the top of him so that was me out of the race.”
A stunning recovery drive in the second installment of races sought to limit the damage on Raven’s points.
“In the second race we came all the way from 15th to second so that was a good rescue. The round you can drop helped us because obviously you’re dropping zero.”
Dropped scores would indeed come into play throughout the year, as the Championship rules dictate a drivers two worse scores will be dropped. More bad luck followed for Raven in the next round at Silverstone, effectively meaning anymore bad finishes in the year would put a dent in his championship aspirations.
“At Silverstone the engine blew up. In the first race the fuel pump broke, so we had a DNF in the first race there, so that was our two dropped scores already done for, but in the second race we managed to drive up to third from 20th, so that was another good rescue mission we had to do there.
“That would have severely hurt the championship as we couldn’t afford any more bad results.”
Something which set Raven a side on many occasions during the season was his ability to fightback from the back of the grid, keeping himself in the Championship hunt. Driving up from 15th to second at Donington and 20th to third at Silverstone proved that it wasn’t a one off.
Perhaps the biggest set back of the year came at the next round at Oulton in August, when a seemingly dominant win turned into a nightmare.
“I was winning by 10 seconds because it started raining, it was really greasy, and on the last lap with three corners left the front left rose joint sheared off, so we ended up finishing fifth, so we’d had so much bad luck in the space of two rounds. It was a significant point’s drop going from first to fifth in the space of three corners.”
That set up a last round decider at Anglesey, with three races deciding the title. Raven couldn’t convert pole into a win in the first race with Gough taking the honours, but the second race went Raven’s way after a healthy dose of controversy. A clash between Raven and Gough at the start of the race threatened to undo all of Raven’s hard work over the season.
“There was an incident in the second race – which I won – where I went down the inside of Stuart and whatever, we got called to the Clarke’s office and I appealed my disqualification.”
The two came together exiting the Corkscrew, as Raven tried to dive down the inside into the final bend, which eventually led to Gough’s retirement from the race.
Thankfully, the decision was overturned and Raven kept his win, meaning he led the championship going into the last race. Much like the first race of the weekend though, Gough had the edge and took the win and the championship.
“It was a good weekend and it was good battling with Stuart, it was good that it came down to the last race. Even Stuart said after the last race I didn’t want the disqualification to stand really because it would have ruined the championship which I thought was really nice, rather than the championship being decided by a steward’s decision.”
So after his first full season in the Championship, Raven managed second in one of the strongest grids in the series in recent memory, especially with Stuart Gough competing a full season. Raven is also certain that his new team for 2014 was pivotal in his results.
“I don’t think it would have been possible either without Cliff, because he’s been a great help and teacher, in terms of the car and understanding it all, different strategies in terms of what he says and how he sets up the car. The whole team, even when Cliff wasn’t at Oulton or Anglesey, his son Keith was fantastic as well, and my mechanic Andrew.”
With 2014 now firmly in the past, Raven is looking some exciting possibilities for 2015, but as with most young drivers, a difficult hunt for sponsors lies ahead for the youngster, also combining his racing with studying for a degree.
Featured image courtesy of AM Soul Images
Festival image courtesy of Rajan Jangda